Why the left must support Syria’s revolution

April 9, 2013

Yusef Khalil answers the objections of those on the left who reject the Syrian uprising against dictatorship--and demands to know which side they're on.

"AIRLIFT TO Rebels in Syria Expands with C.I.A.'s Help" screamed a New York Times headline in late March. "Foreign intervention!" screamed back supporters of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

More than two years after the mass uprising of the Syrian people began, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is still in power--but at a devastating cost. Some 70,000 people are dead, according to United Nations figures, and nearly 5 million have been displaced, internally and externally, by the regime's scorched-earth war to crush its opponents.

Yet some on the U.S. and international left cling to the idea that the regime presiding over this violence and repression is progressive--and that the uprising against it was engineered by Western governments.

Syrians have endured the bloodiest chapter of the Arab Revolutions that swept through the region, starting in 2011. After months of mostly peaceful protests, Syria's revolutionaries--responding to the dictatorship's violent crackdown--had to develop a popular armed resistance to defend themselves and defeat the forces of the regime.

Syrian troops on an operation in city streets

Large parts of the country, including major military bases and airports, have fallen from the government's hands, but they remain under heavy bombardment. Nevertheless, in many of these areas, Syrians are experimenting with local self-government, now that the regime has lost its grip.

Despite all the talk from powerful governments about supporting democracy in Syria, Syrians have for the most part been abandoned. Promises of humanitarian aid and measures to ease the massive refugee crisis have gone unfulfilled. "The needs are rising exponentially, and we are broke," said a spokesperson for the UN Children's Fund UNICEF earlier this month.

Yet some on the left have sided against the Syrian Revolution, claiming that the Assad regime belongs to a supposed "anti-imperialist" camp--and that Washington's rhetorical support for the uprising in Syria shows the millions who have defied Assad are puppets of imperialism.

IN THE litany of sins that the Syrian people have supposedly committed in their two-year-old uprising, for supporters of the regime in left groups, top on the list is aid coming from the U.S. and other Western governments to some organizations among the rebels.

One question that comes to my mind is whether these apologists have similar criticisms about the much more substantial military aid the regime gets from Russia and Iran. But even more to the point is the issue of what these regime supporters were saying before the uprising against Assad shifted toward armed struggle.

Where were they when, for months, Syrians gathered peacefully in the hundreds of thousands in cities around the country, only to be shot dead by Assad's forces? Did they speak up when opponents of the regime, young and old, men and women, were tortured in Assad's dungeons? Are they calling for freedom of all political prisoners and the brave young citizen reporters who are risking their lives to document the government's repression?

What about now? Are they supporting fundraising efforts to assist the refugees living in miserable conditions, both inside Syria and in surrounding countries? Have they organized tangible support for any other form of resistance to the Assad regime? Are they applying the same principles of solidarity in Syria that they profess to have toward other freedom struggles globally?

Or are they using any and all reports of the U.S. government's involvement in Syria as a cover for a shameful subservience to dictatorship?

Like every other regional and international power, the U.S. government has its fingers in Syria. It is maneuvering to shape--and ultimately, to curtail--the Syrian Revolution. That means supporting some factions among the rebels that it believes are the most pliable, but definitely not all factions. Throughout the carnage inflicted by the regime, the U.S. has kept very tight limits on the support, especially military support, it has provided.

As Ghayath Naisse, a member of the Revolutionary Left Current in Syria, explained in an interview:

The major imperialist powers, led by the United States, have always supported what they call an "orderly transition" in Syria, which means only superficial and partial changes to the structure of the regime...This is for geostrategic reasons, including protecting the Zionist entity and preventing the revolution from succeeding and spreading to the entire Arab east, including the reactionary oil monarchies.

I and others have written for SocialistWorker.org before about the regional and international interests at play (here, here and here, for example). So I will only remind readers now that even mainstream media reports, like the Times' article referred to above, regularly include criticisms from rebel forces that the U.S. and other powers have stopped all but light weapons from reaching Syria. Washington, in particular, has blocked heavy weapons like anti-aircraft systems, which could be used against the regime's air force.

Also commonly expressed in many corners of the Syrian uprising is resentment that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar only fund and arm hard-line Islamist groups that are loyal to them, and sometimes hostile to each other--further hindering an effective revolutionary military and political strategy.

Moaz al-Khatib, the recently resigned head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, expressed deep concerns last month about how outside powers are intervening in the revolution in an attempt to control it:

[Groups and individuals] who are willing to obey [outside powers] will be supported. Those who disobey will be offered nothing but hunger and siege. We will not beg for help from anyone. If there is a decision to execute us as Syrians, then let us die as we want. The gate of freedom has opened and will not be closed, not only for Syrians, but for all peoples...Our message to everyone is that Syrians' decisions will be taken by Syrians, and Syrians only.

This doesn't mean that al-Khatib is refusing all help. On the contrary, he calls for unconditional support from all countries. He also expresses the aspirations of millions around the Arab world when he puts the repressive Gulf states which support the Syrian uprising on the spot. After thanking them for their support at the recent Arab League summit, al-Khatib then publicly challenges them "to free [political] detainees in all of the Arab world so that the day of victory of the Syrian Revolution, which will break a link of repression, is a day of joy for all our peoples."

OF COURSE, the Syrian rebels are seeking weapons from outside the country. But this isn't a failing of the rebellion--it was forced on Syrians by the Assad regime, when it declared war on the people and tried to drown the revolution in blood. Every case of torture and murder against peaceful activists merely demanding democracy made an unarmed struggle on its own impossible.

As Lebanese author Fawwaz Traboulsi explained brilliantly:

The Syrian revolutionaries don't owe anybody an apology. Nor should they waste any time explaining their neglect of other forms of struggle. This great people still demonstrates at every opportunity to affirm its presence and willingness to pursue peaceful means. The only thing that requires an explanation is their position regarding financing and foreign aid.

Whoever has lived under the same conditions as Syrian citizens, and witnessed all this repression and murder, and was forced to pick up a weapon, knows they will look for weapons from anywhere. The regime, which has pushed Syrians to pick up guns, has also pushed them to accept financing for their armed struggle. It is no secret that armed revolutions have financial needs beyond the direct means of the people involved.

The vital question facing the Syrian opposition is how to get aid from sources that can provide what the revolution needs, including weapons, while maintaining independent Syrian decision-making. This is a tough question to answer, but not impossible.

But those who support the regime because they claim the uprising is being manipulated by the West are dishonest. They didn't support the revolution when it was still in the phase of nonviolent mass mobilizations, and they wouldn't support independent efforts to get financial and material resources to Syrian revolutionaries today.

Meanwhile, the apologists save their sympathy--unbelievably enough--for Bashar al-Assad, who they see as the poor victim of an imperialist conspiracy.

This is after Assad and his regime have killed 70,000 people, disappeared as many or more, destroyed upwards of 1 million homes and other buildings, and displaced over 5 million people. It would seem that the real conspiracy is against the Syrian people. Any genuine left worth must support the masses of Syria in their uprising against oppression, instead of siding with the oppressors.

But, we are asked, what about Israel? Isn't the Assad regime a necessary bulwark against Zionism in the Middle East?

Although Israeli politicians talk happily about Assad's imminent fall, this doesn't mean they support the revolution. Israel is terrified by the changes that have taken place since the Arab Spring. Having stable dictatorships surrounding it was good for Israel--for both propaganda purposes (how many times have you heard that Israel is the "only democracy in the Middle East"?) and security purposes (there's nothing like a highly repressive, though rhetorically nationalist, regime to keep the Arab population, long radicalized by the Palestinian cause, under tight control).

As Fawwaz Traboulsi pointed out in the article quoted earlier, Assad's true value to Israel and its U.S. ally is "to be responsible for two countries (Syria and Lebanon) and to maintain security and stability on the northern border of occupied Palestine...while also controlling Hezbollah...which needs an official country to be responsible for it." Without a ready alternative to assume these responsibilities, the U.S. has been wary of military intervention in Syria, nor providing unconditional support to the rebellion. As Traboulsi concludes:

[I]f we assume that the American and Western plans aim to destroy Syria and divide its people, if not its entity, as expressed by the theories of the "Israeli-American Project" and "the New Middle East," then the regime has itself adopted this mission and surpassed Washington's wildest dreams of killing and destruction.

The vast majority of the Syrian population is hostile to the regime. Of course, there is a class of Syrians that is organically linked to the dictatorship and has material interests in the survival of the regime. Others are persuaded by the regime's sectarian propaganda that religious and ethnic minorities will be attacked if the revolution succeeds. They may not be enthusiastic about the regime, but they fear a future without the iron-fisted rule of Assad.

But this is no excuse for the kind of assaults that regime supporters have made against Syrian revolutionaries and their supporters--most outrageously at the World Social Forum in Tunisia, where these forces showed up at the tent set up by the Global Solidarity with Syria Campaign, and physically attacked participants, women and men alike, and burned the flag of the Syrian Revolution.

BEYOND THOSE who support the Syrian regime as a progressive opponent of imperialism, there are those who are justly suspicious of the motives of the U.S. and other powerful governments--and who fear that Syrians are doomed to a civil war between a bloodthirsty dictator and groups of intolerant little tyrants sustained by the U.S. and other powers.

What these pictures of the situation miss--intentionally or not--is the fact that Syria is in the grips of more than a civil war. What is taking place is a popular revolution, with an armed component. There are a wide variety of groups involved and at least as many strategies and ideas about what the struggle is about--including those that are not left wing and that will make accommodations with imperialism.

But the uprising is also a very dynamic process that has involved millions of people becoming active in public life for the first time. There are political advances and retreats, and moments of triumph and disappointment, just as there are military victories and defeats. But it would be wrong to reduce the Syrian Revolution to the question of the armed struggle and the role of imperialist powers in trying to shape and co-opt that armed struggle.

Take the role of women in the uprising--something that is not widely appreciated anywhere, and especially not in the mainstream media. Women have been very active participants and leaders from the beginning. They have played a role not just as victims and mothers and sisters of the martyrs and detainees, but also in demonstrations, on the front in field hospitals, in citizen reporting, and in the distribution of medicine and humanitarian supplies.

As a group of women activists in Aleppo wrote, "We will not wait until the regime falls for women to become active." At the same time, they write, the "militarization of the revolution" has overshadowed the role of women--so in early March, the revolutionary local council of Aleppo was elected and didn't include a single woman, despite some well-known female activists being nominated.

So there is--like everywhere in the world--some distance to go before women have equality in Syria. But the role they have played in the struggle so far--and will in the future--underlines how the uprising has opened up many different fronts in the battle against the Assad regime. As Ghayath Naisse said in an interview published by SocialistWorker.org:

The popular masses have invented many forms of struggles, including massive popular demonstrations that we saw in July of last year in Hama and Deir Ezzour; fast demonstrations (like flash mobs) that only last for several minutes; and demonstrations in neighborhoods with narrow streets in order to prevent the security forces from finding and cornering them, thus allowing protesters to disperse in narrow alleys when faced with repression.

Other actions include night demonstrations, releasing balloons carrying revolutionary slogans, dyeing the fountains red in major city squares, raising the flags of the revolution in streets and balconies, renaming streets with names of the revolution's martyrs and, of course, a series of general strikes. The most recent one, in December 2012, was called the Strike of Dignity and lasted two days.

Every Friday, the masses raise their slogans, most of them united, in response to specific situations or to express their opinion regarding any matter of concern to the revolution. These are also a means to form a common mass consciousness and to generalize revolutionary experiences.

ONE PROBLEM facing the revolution is the proliferation of armed groups operating independently of each other, with no joint military strategy or adherence to the popular demands of the revolution. Clashes between some of these groups have intensified, and some parts of the population are increasingly alienated by reactionary practices and strict religious ideologies among some armed groups, including Islamists with the greatest access to Western arms.

But in some areas, armed groups have found ways to coordinate. For example, one report from Daraya attributes the steadfastness of the city's resistance to coordination between the umbrella Free Syrian Army and the civilian leadership of the local revolutionary council. As a result, all armed groups have to be subordinate to a central military authority in order to operate in the city.

To avoid clientelism and abuse of resources, all donations and aid go into a unified fund, from which they are distributed to military work and humanitarian aid under the supervision of the local council. Despite the urgent need for support, Daraya has rejected political conditions being tied to financial and military aid.

Many bodies of the revolution have been sharply critical of armed groups that are seen as acting in their own or others' interests and that go against popular demands. One such body is the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, which represents a number of grassroots committees that emerged out of the revolution to organize protests and begin steps toward self-government. This alliance, while making clear that blame for all the violence lies with the Assad regime, nevertheless has stated:

[R]evolutionaries have noticed some bad practices by some who carry arms. Therefore, the Local Coordinating Committees have sent a message to every revolutionary who has decided to carry a gun. They raised banners calling against indiscriminate use of weapons, and that the [morally responsible] use of weapons will be a fundamental reason of victory...

The coordinating committees of Irbeen, Zabadani, Madaya, Hamouriya, Jdeidet Artouz in the Damascus suburbs, Hrak, Sanamein, Tafs, Anchel, Yarmouk Camp, Naimah in Dara'a, Kafrouma in Idlib, Misyaf, Hama, Bazza'a, Bab from Aleppo province, Jableh in Latakia, Tartous, Qadmus in Tartous, Hasakah, Qamishli, Aamoudah in Hasakah, Tabkah in Raqqa all participated. In addition, revolutionaries asked everybody to adopt morals that affirm the principles of the revolution for freedom and dignity.

I WANT to leave the last word to ">a brave revolutionary, leftist writer Nahed Badawiyya, speaking from inside Syria:

The Arab Revolutions have come to put an end to the traditional left, and especially the traditional Communist Parties, which have been ineffective for a long time. They have become conservative, reactionary structures, devoid of members. In Syria, these Communist Parties gravitated towards the murderous regime and become accomplices to its crimes.

Therefore, much of their base, especially the youth, abandoned them and took to the streets to join their generation in protest. You will notice this phenomenon in all the traditional political movements in Syria. The youths of the Palestinian, Arab and Kurdish political movements have all separated from their leadership and joined the revolution. In all these political movements, the party leaderships were an obstacle and a brake on the revolutionary Syrian youth. At the same time, however, new Leftist youth formations emerged from within the revolution giving voice to its essence. I hope they grow and proliferate.

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